Public policy in a coronavirus world

Public policy in a coronavirus world

It is concomitantly fascinating and frightening:

Everyone from government officials to university researchers (and we only can suppose many others) are using cellphone location data to determine if the public is practicing social distancing guidelines as the coronavirus pandemic plays out.

As a Post-Gazette report detailed it, advocates see it as a possible way to better contain the contagion and even help to predict how, and when, to safely reopen the economy.

But civil libertarians warn that such data mining and analysis could go seriously awry.

We are not conspiracy theorists by any stretch of the imagination. But the danger clearly is manifest should those charged with “serving the public good” allow their always seemingly lurking central planning authoritarianism to get the best of them.

And that’s true in both “normal” times and in times of crises.

As the P-G notes, a group of more than 100 civil liberty groups issued a statement this month noting how technology can and should play an important role during this effort to save lives.

“However, an increase in state digital surveillance powers — such as obtaining access to mobile phone location data — threatens privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of association.”

How tragic it would be for the altruistic battle against coronavirus to result in the war being lost against ever-encroaching government.

We’ve observed a number of public-policy “fails” since the pandemic changed life as we know it:

Think of the rather sudden decision to close Pennsylvania’s liquor stores. It was a move that created a run on many of those facilities, which was anathema to those social distancing guidelines.

It also sent streams and rivers, if not waterfalls, of Pennsylvania residents to neighboring states to buy their liquor. Talk about a textbook tutorial on the Law of Unintended Consequences.

How might that scenario have further spread the virus?

Ohio has become the latest state to ban out-of-staters from buying liquor. And some of the gendarmes even have talked of attempting to enforce — at a later date, we suppose — laws on the books that prohibit the large transfer of liquor across state lines.

We can almost see a new iteration of “revenuers” chasing down modern-day “rum-runners” in the post-pandemic world, can’t you?

Then there’s the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports & Exhibition Authority.

In a time of dire revenue losses at facilities it owns and oversees – the convention center, the baseball park and the hockey arena, to name three – the authority’s board approved a more than $17,000 contract to remove and replace an American flag that’s become stuck high atop the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

And it’s not the first time. About $13,000 was spent in 2012 for a similar rescue mission.

There is an interim saving grace. The coronavirus pandemic has temporarily halted the execution of many construction contracts, of which this exercise in bad public policy falls.

But this matter points, first, to a design flaw and, second, to a flaw in logic of replacing a flag that, more than likely, will become stuck again.

By the way, a standard commercial-grade, ground-level flagpole can be had for under $500, minus installation, on one website.

There’s a very precise sound public policy word that goes along with that product-availability note: “Hint.”

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (